Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Ellis Island

*Ellis Island. Official processing center in New York Harbor, where, like thousands of other immigrants in 1907, David Schearl and his mother Genya first set foot in America. They are met by Genya’s husband Albert, who has preceded them across the Atlantic and has been living in Brownsville and working as a printer. Albert accompanies his wife and son on a ferry from Ellis Island to the city, where they begin their lives together as a new American family. Genya’s first words, a remark about having arrived in “the Golden Land,” highlight the novel’s attention to its urban setting.

*Lower East Side

*Lower East Side. Congested section of Manhattan where European immigrants, particularly Jews, settled soon after arriving in the United States. David Schearl and his parents live on the fourth floor of a tenement house on 9th Street and Avenue D. The novel is largely restricted to the consciousness of a frightened, confused little boy who, except for an unfortunate excursion with his father on his milk route, rarely ventures beyond the turbulent streets immediately surrounding his building. In addition to the family apartment itself, significant events occur on the roof of the building. Roth’s Lower East Side is a vibrant, polyglot community, terrifying to a young newcomer but inspiring to an author. Roth later credited this urban setting for much of the stimulus to write Call It Sleep....

(The entire section is 533 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Dembo, L. S. The Monological Jew: A Literary Study. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Argues that Roth uses an imagist technique of perceiving reality: David senses but never understands life.

Farber, Frances D. “Encounters with an Alien Culture: Thematic Functions of Dialect in Call It Sleep.” Yiddish 7 (1990): 49-56. Analyzes the way Roth masters the “cacophony” of street dialects of immigrants becoming acculturated in early twentieth century New York City and how he uses speech to show “young David’s temptations and terrors.”

Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Analyzes David’s agony as representative of the experience of first-generation Jews as they take their place in American culture. Also recognizes the novel’s universality.

Lyons, Bonnie. Henry Roth: The Man and His Work. New York: Cooper Square, 1976. In this extensive treatment of Roth, Lyons discusses Call It Sleep in the context of the author’s life and shows that it is a unified work of art.

Sherman, Bernard. The Invention of the Jew: Jewish-American Education Novels (1916-1964). New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1969. Treats the book as primarily a Depression novel but recognizes that central to it is the maturing of a young mind.